WRIT­TEN BY THE STARS

The Aus­tralian was there to chron­i­cle the highs and lows of the coun­try’s lit­er­ary scene as it came of age, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

MY trusty An­nals of Aus­tralian Lit­er­a­ture re­ports that, in the year of The Aus­tralian’s found­ing, only 14 adult “lit­er­ary” nov­els were pub­lished na­tion­wide — though sev­eral vol­umes of short sto­ries were re­leased, in­clud­ing Patrick White’s The Burnt Ones. While the pick­ings were slim, the qual­ity was high: 1964 saw Ge­orge John­ston’s My Brother Jack win the Miles Franklin, and wit­nessed the pub­li­ca­tion of two land­mark works: Don­ald Horne’s The Lucky Coun­try and Ge­of­frey Dut­ton’s The Lit­er­a­ture of Aus­tralia.

Dut­ton’s vol­ume re­mains a valu­able and en­gag­ing work, and in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Out in the Open the pa­tri­cian man of letters out­lines the cul­tural back­ground against which it ap­peared. The early 1960s was a mo­ment when, in Dut­ton’s telling, cer­tain in­choate ideas of Aus­tralia’s his­tory were in for­ma­tion. Col­lec­tions of songs and bal­lads, sur­veys of vis­ual art, en­cy­clo­pe­dias and dic­tio­nar­ies of bi­og­ra­phy be­gan to ap­pear. The Aus­tralian’s book pages should be seen as part and par­cel of these de­vel­op­ments. They sought to gather to­gether and fo­cus at­ten­tion on the na­tion’s artis­tic and in­tel­lec­tual life. These es­says and re­views were some­times acute in an­tic­i­pat­ing the ar­rival of a new talent or work. Just as of­ten, their judg­ments were off. Yet a dive into the ar­chives re­veals a re­fresh­ingly in­tel­li­gent, de­ter­minedly un-high-minded ap­proach to the busi­ness of lit­er­a­ture. THE most sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­ary mo­ment in the first decade of the paper’s his­tory — White’s No­bel win in 1973 — be­gan with a false start. White told Dut­ton he was clean­ing his sub­ur­ban Syd­ney home with­out his teeth in when Swedish jour­nal­ists first de­scended on it in 1972, based on ru­mours from the Swedish Academy. He an­swered the door and sub­mit­ted to their ques­tions, only to learn that Hein­rich Boll had won the No­bel. Twelve months later, he would not be fooled again. When, late one evening, Aus­tralia’s great­est nov­el­ist and his part­ner Manoly Las­caris were again be­sieged by journos who had got­ten wind of the gong (the Swedish am­bas­sador had been try­ing to get White’s num­ber to in­form him, so wary were the au­thor’s friends of giv­ing it out to a stranger), he re­fused to come to the door.

The Aus­tralian’s El­iz­a­beth Rid­dell was one of those stand­ing out­side, watch­ing the up­stairs cur­tains twitch. Her ar­ti­cle for the paper re­lates the fol­low­ing ex­change, wryly recorded in David Marr’s bi­og­ra­phy of White: “‘Come back in the morn­ing,’ called Las­caris. ‘We can’t wait,’ replied an anx­ious pho­tog­ra­pher. ‘ We have to do the Queen in the morn­ing.’ She was in Syd­ney to open the Opera House that weekend.” Marr wrote that jour­nal­ists and well-wish­ers con­tin­ued to gather on the front lawn of White’s Cen­ten­nial Park home. But the Swedish am­bas­sador’s calls (when he got the num­ber) went unan­swered, and White crept down­stairs only to get more whisky.

But not all ma­jor lit­er­ary events played out in the news pages. The Aus­tralian was at the heart of reporting the most spec­tac­u­lar con­flict in­volv­ing Aus­tralians out­side of Viet­nam dur­ing these years. The 1970s “po­etry wars”, as they came to be known, were fought in the trenches of the books sec­tion. On one side, a con­ser­va­tive ca­bal of poets, Arcadian in out­look and for­mally rig­or­ous, led by ti­tanic fig­ure Les Mur­ray. On the other, an in­sur­gent bri­gade of ex­per­i­men­tal poets, avowed mod­ernists in­spired by Amer­i­can cul­ture both high and low, rep­re­sented by the daunt­ingly tal­ented John Tran­ter.

Here is a typ­i­cal ex­change, with Tran­ter in The Aus­tralian, re­view­ing Mur­ray’s The Ver­nac­u­lar Repub­lic: Selected Po­ems: The prob­lem here is that Les Mur­ray is a lit­tle too sat­is­fied, a lit­tle too in­ex­pe­ri­enced in the tor­tured me­ta­physics of the mod­ern ur­ban world, to be able to adopt con­vinc­ingly the man­tle of the tribal el­der. The phi­los­o­phy of the Left is too im­por­tant to dis­miss with­out proper ar­gu­ment; the leg­end of An­zac is too stained with the blood of the Viet­namese to be cel­e­brated as one-sid­edly as Mur­ray does…

Un­like that South­east Asian de­ba­cle, decades on this con­test shows no sign of end­ing.

An­other con­flict that thank­fully has gone cool in re­cent years is that of the so-called the­ory wars. The turn of Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties to­wards post­struc­tural­ist thinkers be­gan in the mid-1980s and spread like in­tel­lec­tual Ebola, par­tic­u­larly in the halls of tech­ni­cal col­leges whose stu­dents wished to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the crusty Leav­is­ites in their sand­stone bolt­holes. And while there was a lib­er­at­ing as­pect to the best the­o­ret­i­cal work lo­cally, the wil­ful ob­scu­rity of its less gifted prac­ti­tion­ers earned the­ory ridicule in the press.

To its credit, Aus­tralian fic­tion pro­ceeded in bliss­ful ig­no­rance of the academy’s de­con­struc­tive urges dur­ing this febrile pe­riod. And there were some thrilling achieve­ments. Not since Tom Ke­neally won back-to-back Miles Franklins in the late 60s, for ex­am­ple, had an Aus­tralian au­thor en­joyed a suc­cess so huge as Peter Carey’s sec­ond Booker prize. His first, for Os­car and Lucinda in 1988, in­di­cated Carey was the com­ing Aus­tralian nov­el­ist of his gen­er­a­tion; the sec­ond, for True His­tory of the Kelly Gang in 2001, con­firmed him as a ma­jor fig­ure on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

What is less well-known is that with­out Barry Oak­ley, long-time lit­er­ary edi­tor of The Aus­tralian and a writer of note him­self, Carey may never have reached the dizzy heights. When the two young men shared a com­mute to a Mel­bourne ad­ver­tis­ing agency in the mid-60s, Oak­ley paid his half of the petrol bill in paperbacks by mod­ernist gi­ants such as Faulkner, Joyce and Beck­ett. Up un­til that time, Carey later ad­mit­ted, he mainly read Big­gles.

Even Carey’s prodi­gious lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion would have baulked at the re­al­ity of the most no­to­ri­ous lit­er­ary hoax of re­cent decades. The furore sur­round­ing He­len Demi­denko/Darville’s The Hand That Signed the Paper —a novel that won the Vo­gel in 1993 and the Miles Franklin in 1995 be­fore it was re­vealed that the au­thor had lied about her Ukrainian back­ground, an eth­nic as­so­ci­a­tion on which the ve­rac­ity of her his­tor­i­cal novel rested — opened deep fault-lines in the na­tion’s in­tel­lec­tual and lit­er­ary life.

Barry Co­hen, writ­ing in The Aus­tralian soon af­ter the novel was re­vealed to have been writ­ten by a Bris­bane-reared woman of English ex­trac­tion who had bor­rowed the back­story of a neigh­bour, sub­jected the work to a light sav­aging: “Some have read The Hand and failed to de­tect any anti-Semitism. If so, one can only con­clude that there were dif­fer­ent ver­sions printed with the same cover.”

Darville even­tu­ally lit out for Bri­tain, while Carey was al­ready a New Yorker when his Ned Kelly novel swept the boards. It soon be­came clear that we could no longer speak of our lit­er­a­ture in naive terms of ge­o­graphic isolation. In­deed, the ex­am­ple of South African JM Coet­zee — a No­bel prizewin­ner whose lin­guis­tic back­ground was Afrikaans but whose cul­tural af­fil­i­a­tion was with An­glo­sphere mod­ernism — who took Aus­tralian ci­ti­zen­ship in 2006, is a case study in the dif­fi­culty of speak­ing of na­tional lit­er­a­tures in a transna­tional age.

Yet such cen­tripetal forces of glob­al­i­sa­tion were matched by a cen­trifu­gal turn to­wards the re­gional. Of all of the cul­tural riches Aus­tralia reaped since it opened its borders to the wider world in the 60s and 70s, the most sur­pris­ing trea­sure has come from be­neath our feet. Writ­ing by indige­nous au­thors has emerged as the most vi­brant phe­nom­e­non in con­tem­po­rary Ozlit. At its van­guard stand Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, win­ners of three Miles Franklin awards be­tween them, who hail from the Noon­gar and Waanyi people re­spec­tively.

Their work, with its in­tense at­tach­ment to place and to the shared lan­guage and story that emerges from the long re­la­tion­ship be­tween people and land, com­pli­cates no­tions of “Aus­tralian” lit­er­a­ture even as it re­vi­talises the form.

Scott and Wright owe their ca­reers to the sup­port of in­de­pen­dent Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing. How­ever, re­cent years have seen at­tacks mounted against the idea that lo­cal pub­lish­ers should be pro­tected from the ex­i­gen­cies of the global mar­ket­place. Look­ing back through the ar­chives, The Aus­tralian was philo­soph­i­cally in­clined to ac­cept the ar­gu­ments for the re­moval of ter­ri­to­rial copy­right for Aus­tralian pub­lish­ers and au­thors af­ter the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion rec­om­mended the na­tion do so in 2009. Yet there were voices from the con­ser­va­tive end of town raised in de­fence of the sta­tus quo

Those in the in­dus­try saw the end of pub­lish­ing and book­selling as they knew it. What no one had counted on was the ex­tent to which Ama­zon would ren­der the de­bate null and void.

The con­tours of the new dig­i­tal land­scape are only grad­u­ally be­com­ing clearer, and the im­por­tance of re­cent changes to the way we pro­duce, dis­sem­i­nate and dis­cuss books can­not be over­stated. Yet the apoca­lypse has not ar­rived, quite. We were told the phys­i­cal book was set for extinction and that those news­pa­per pages de­voted to ar­gu­ing their flaws and mer­its were fad­ing too. But the e-reader revo­lu­tion has not played out as I imag­ined it would. Print books have re­mained stub­bornly present, sur­viv­ing in­de­pen­dent book­shops have a fiercely loyal con­stituency, and emerg­ing so­cial me­dia plat­forms have tended to re­in­force rather than un­der­mine the old net­works of lit­er­ary en­deav­our. The small mag­a­zine and lit­er­ary jour­nal scene in Aus­tralia has never seemed more alive, for ex­am­ple. And while I’m ob­vi­ously bi­ased, The Aus­tralian’s book pages seem to be en­joy­ing a wel­come re­nais­sance, too.

ON­LINE

theaus­tralian.com.au/re­view

Patrick White’s 1973 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture was a turn­ing point, left; He­len Demi­denko, aka He­len Darville, be­low

Peter Carey, above; Tim Win­ton, be­low

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